In his new book Loving Humanity, Learning, and Being Honored (published by Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies), Howard University professor Norman B. Sandridge discusses the timeless ideals of leadership in Greek historian Xenophon’s work Cyropaedia (Education of Cyrus). In Cyropaedia, written in 4th century BC, Xenophon presents a fictionalized account of a real historical figure, Persian king Cyrus the Great. Politicians throughout history have embraced Xenophon’s model of leading with attention to humanity, learning, and honor, and we asked Sandridge about the lessons available to voters and candidates today.
Many people, ancient and modern, read the Education of Cyrus because it is full of amusing and enlightening stories about leadership. What does a great leader look like as a kid? How do you train leaders? Can leaders have wild, romantic passion and still benefit their followers? How should leaders treat their rivals? Why do people follow leaders? These are all questions that ancient theorists wrestled with, but Xenophon did us a favor by casting them in a narrative form. In the ancient world Greeks and Romans thought that one of the best ways to become a better person was to contemplate and then emulate the examples of great people. The fact that Xenophon’s Cyrus was a historical figure gave readers an even greater sense of what was possible not only in theory but in practice.
Q: What are Xenophon’s major pieces of advice for politicians, and what specific advice do you think he would give to today’s presidential hopefuls?
I think Xenophon’s first lesson would be, “look outside of your own culture for inspiration.” When Xenophon wrote the Education of Cyrus, the Greeks had been fighting wars with the Persians for well over one hundred years. These wars turned out to be as much military as cultural; Persians were often seen as either deficient or hyperbolic of everything it meant to be Greek. And yet Xenophon looked to the example of Cyrus to theorize about the best kind of leadership. In part this was because Xenophon himself had served with Persians on campaign and had personal admiration for their prince, Cyrus the Younger. But also I think Xenophon found it liberating to think outside of his own culture.
By contrast, ever since September 11th, we have witnessed a disappointing trend in chauvinism in America (more positively cast as “American exceptionalism”), which no major politician seems to be able to escape. In so many other fields like art, math, science, and engineering, we recognize that progress is achieved only with global collaboration and imagination. How liberating for the American psyche would it be to hear President Obama or Governor Romney express a fondness for an ancient Iranian king like Cyrus!
Secondly, I think Xenophon would tell any potential politician that leadership is a lifetime intellectual and ethical pursuit—not something learned as an afterthought to other previous ambitions. As Xenophon conceives of it, young Persians go to school to learn the moral virtues they will need to lead their community, virtues like gratitude, justice, self-restraint, and mastery over hunger, thirst, and sleep.
Finally, I think Xenophon would also remind us, and our politicians, that a good community is a prerequisite to good leadership. Cyrus grows up in a Persia whose members are as trained in civic virtue as he is, even if he turns out to be the greatest practitioner of it. When he speaks to them about their interests, he is doing so from a shared set of values. Thus, if we want better leaders, we must strive to be better people ourselves.
Q: Which politicians today most embody Xenophon’s ideal of a leader? How do both Obama and Romney utilize humanity, learning, and honor to lead?
One could say a lot about President Obama’s resemblance to Xenophon’s Cyrus. Both have a mixed ancestry (Cyrus had Persian and Medan parents) and spend their youths in different parts of the world, studying foreign cultures. Cyrus is also very interested in healthcare. He regularly tends those wounded in battle and ensures that his empire has the finest physicians. Most importantly, Cyrus believes that a leader’s greatest honor is the ability to provide for his followers in a material but also a moral sense: leaders win honor by enabling others to become better human beings.
Governor Romney has also spent time in other countries and he studied French culture from his time as a Mormon missionary; but he does not seem to treat this as a mark of honor on the campaign trail. The closest similarity I can find to Cyrus is that Governor Romney is concerned to see that entrepreneurs receive compensation commensurate with their efforts and talent (“you built that!”). For his part Cyrus improves the Persian army by explaining to them that the spoils of war will not be distributed to them equally but according to each soldier’s contribution to the effort. As a result each soldier does his best and even the inferior ones feel gratitude (not envy) for the successes of their superiors.
Q: In your book you pose the question “to what extent does the leader reconcile his or her own needs and interests (e.g., for luxury, glory, wealth, power, privilege, safety, friendship, sex, romance) with those of the followers?” How would Xenophon respond to this?
For Xenophon, the followers’ quality of life seems to be measured in terms of physical prosperity, safety, and the opportunity to behave in virtuous ways that win recognition and glory from the community. Not surprisingly, the good leader’s happiness is supposed to be measured in similar ways. Problems can arise when a leader is seen to hoard the glory or wealth that might go to the followers. Xenophon presents Cyrus, however, as not only loving of honor and glory but so worthy of them that no one seems to be bothered by his exalted status. On his deathbed he pronounces himself happy for the good deeds he has done for others and the success his friends have enjoyed.
Q: What are some modern examples of times where a leader has successfully or unsuccessfully reconciled his/her needs with those of his/her followers?
As to the importance of maintaining a private life, Xenophon is somewhat ambiguous. His Cyrus enjoys no romances but ensures that his followers can. When Cyrus finally marries at the end of his military campaigns, it is for political purposes, though Xenophon says that Cyrus’ wife is beautiful and affectionate. Cyrus’ closest friends are by and large also his closest political associates, which is not to say that they don’t enjoy jocular conversation and festivity with one another. Cyrus does seem to take counsel with himself, but more often he does so in the company of others. If anything, Xenophon’s Cyrus is a studied case in how public life infiltrates one’s private life in every way.
As a continuation of his work with the Cyropaedia, Norman Sandridge and Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies have launched an online learning collaborative, “Cyrus’ Paradise.” The site is aimed at creating a crowd-sourced commentary on all eight books of the Education of Cyrus, and also offers resources for scholars teaching the text. Visit https://www.cyropaedia.org/ to join in.